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July 7, 2008

Food safety helps drive consumer confidence, says branded beef producers group

Canada's internationally recognized safety standards for food safety can help drive consumer confidence and influence buying decisions at the meat counter, says a group of Western Canadian beef producers who market their own branded product.

Prairie Heritage Beef Producers, which markets its product as "natural" beef produced without antibiotics, growth hormones, or animal by-products, has made registration in the Verified Beef Production (VBP) program a requirement for all of the 18 producers in its value chain. VBP is Canada's verified on-farm food safety program for beef and is based on internationally recognized food safety standards.

"At the end of the day, VBP is a tool that helps us prove to consumers that we're doing what we say we're doing," says Jason Hagel of Hagel Feeders in Linden, Alberta, a Prairie Heritage producer. "The cattle that go into the Prairie Heritage system really do not get sick. The procedures of the VBP program have played a big role in helping us keep the animals healthy without the use of antibiotics."

VBP standards have also helped Prairie Heritage build a retail base, says Hagel. "Some of the retail stores are wary of bringing in new product because they do not always know what they're getting. In that regard, VBP is a good tool. We can direct retailers to the Web site and they can see that our production practices are based on internationally accepted standards. The bottom line is that it's not just a good tool for niche marketers, but for the profile of the whole beef industry."

VBP is based on Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) principles. For Canada's beef industry, these principles have been adapted into Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) which cover animal health management, cattle shipping, medicated feed, pesticide control and training/communications.

A key component of the VBP program is strong record keeping practices. Although Hagel, who also produces commodity beef, already had an extensive record keeping program in place, the practice took on a new perspective in the context of running a combination natural/commodity beef feedlot.

"First, we make sure that the commodity animals which receive antibiotic treatments are tagged, marked, and segregated into a separate pen with records kept on all of that activity," says Hagel. "From there, we keep really good records of what's being fed and to which animals. Any time we receive supplement, we document it and store it in a separate and clearly labelled storage area."

Flushing feed mixing equipment is a crucial step in making sure residues from treatments do not end up where they do not belong. "In order to avoid consumption by unintended cattle, we flush any containers that contain medicated feed. The flushed feed is then used or disposed of so it does not present a contamination risk to other feed."

An example of a practice that was driven by Hagel Feeders' registration in VBP is checking the cattle for unknown broken needles before shipping them for processing. In line with Prairie Heritage Beef Producers' commitment to humane animal handling, this step also gives Hagel the opportunity to inspect the truck for anything that may cause the animals discomfort in the shipping process. "Stress on animals is 85 percent of the reason cattle get sick," he says.

More information is featured in a new article, "Verified Beef Production backs beef value chain success," available on the VBP Web site at www.verifiedbeef.org. The VBP Web site also features information on program fundamentals and the latest news and developments, including contact information to find out about VBP workshops across the country.